The internet finally seems to have made a dint in New York’s institutional art world. Cory Arcangel, an artist who began his career manipulating old computer technologies and critiquing web culture, has an entire floor to himself at The Whitney. At the age of 33, his show Pro Tools makes him the youngest artist to receive a solo show at the institution since Bruce Nauman in 1973. Meanwhile, over at MoMA PS1, 30-year-old art star Ryan Trecartin is gathering steam with his four hour-plus video exhibiton of fucked-up child-adults on Blackberries, titled Any Ever. The show at PS1, chock full of internet jargon, is just one stop on a world tour that includes the Istanbul Modern Museum and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Given the ridiculous level of buzz now surrounding these shows, one has to wonder just what we’re expecting from the art. Although local critics have mostly panned Arcangel’s exhibition, initial press included profiles in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and the New York Times—a barometer of significant pre-show hype. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to proffer an opinion about that show, even if they haven’t seen the exhibition or don’t know anything about the art, a sure sign of The Emperor Has No Clothes syndrome. While Ryan Trecartin’s pre-press was a little more subdued, once the show opened critics basically queued up to laud it. The Times‘s Roberta Smith described the show as a “game-changer,” praise topped only by The New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl, who described Trecartin as “the most consequential artist to emerge since the mid-eighties.” Apparently, he’s our Jeff Koons.
Two questions come to mind: First, is it really the art that’s prompting this clamor? And second, how did Arcangel and Trecartin end up garnering such a focus in the first place? The answer to the first question is obvious: virtually no media frenzy bears a one-to-one relationship with its subject, and the internet/tech hype might be the most powerful gimmick yet in the buzz-thirsty NYC museum world. (Just look at MoMA’s Talk To Me, a design show on communication technology sure to bring in foot traffic, with little to no relation to art.)
The answer to the second question, though, is a little more complicated. Producing strong work does some obvious good for a career, but doesn’t necessarily result in shows and reviews. Rather, for a myriad of the most sudden art stars, it’s more about producing the right work at the right time, and getting that work to the right people. Trecartin and Arcangel benefited from exceptional timing and exceptional support, and in the case of both artists, it’s useful to look at the roles of narrative, collaboration, and technology as a means of tracking their success. It’s less useful to buy into the kind of thinking that tells us anything we do with our phones and computers is somehow inherently interesting and worthy of artistic exploration.
Let’s begin with Cory Arcangel, who by most accounts saw his career take off after his inclusion in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Nearly every critic mentioned the artist’s hacked Super Mario Bros. video game, a projection that removed all the landscape elements from the game, but for the clouds. The response was mixed, but the attention made visible a groundswell of interest in his work that had been percolating for several years.
If no single event or artwork brought Arcangel to this early marker of stardom, what exactly were people responding to? It’s hard to say, but part of it had to be the exuberant sense of purpose Arcangel and his crowd brought to digital technology. At the time, many people didn’t even know what a browser was, let alone that art could exist on it, but there was a sense that this was changing. A cadre of like-minded artists and curators scattered across the world—Paper Rad, Marcin Ramocki and Lauren Cornell to name a few—were making that shift happen. Part of the allure of Arcangel’s video games was that an understanding of cultural context was necessary for people to get the art.